French President Emmanuel Macron only just dodged another day of heckles and boos from opponents of the controversial pension reform. But a war of attrition aimed at the president and his government looks to have no sign of letting up, with pots and pans the weapons of choice.
President Macron’s first trip to a French region since signing his unpopular pension reform didn’t go down well. The photos and videos taken on Wednesday 19 April bear witness of the flop. Crowds of protestors booed as he stepped foot in the small town of Sélestat in eastern France’s Alsace region, banging pots and chanting “Macron resign!”
It was time to take new photos, tell a new story. That of a population who appreciates their president and who are in favour of the pension reform. Or at the very least, who understand the need to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64. So Macron did what he deemed necessary.
#PotsAndPans for Macron
The following day, Macron made his way to Ganges in southern France. But before his arrival, the president ordered police to keep protestors away from the school he would be visiting. A decree banning the use of “portable sound devices” was also issued by local authorities, to avoid any unwanted background noise. In other words, no pots or pans allowed.
The measures allowed Macron to carry out a rather peaceful exchange with students, who were all delighted to meet him. Later that afternoon, the president made an unscheduled stop in Pérols, a small town near Montpellier airport. With his blazer flung over one shoulder, he strolled nonchalantly through cobbled streets before sitting down to have a beer and some tapas, taking selfies with teens and chatting to locals who encouraged him to hold steady.
In the three months after announcing the deeply unpopular pension reform, Macron made very few public appearances to speak to voters. These trips outside of Paris are a way for him to signal his willingness to turn the page and show is he not hiding from voters, many of whom are outraged by the way the legislation was passed. And each stop has been carefully planned.
Inhabitants of the Hérault region where Macron made his second visit put him in third place during the first round of France’s 2022 presidential elections, with 22.28% of votes. In Pérols, that number reached 28.52%, granting Macron first place.
But will the shots of Macron drinking beer on a sunny terrace or chummily shaking hands with locals be enough for France to move on and accept the reforms? Can they erase three months of tensions, furious disputes and riots brought on by his deeply unpopular decision to reform France’s pension system? Nothing is less certain as his opponents seem determined to grind Macron’s administration and reforms down into the mire.
Unions disrupt Macron's visit to Notre Dame
After his Monday night speech on primetime TV where he called for “100 days of calm discusion, a real action plan and unity for France”, Macron's speech in fact annoyed the French public.
After organising months of record-breaking strikes and protests, French unions have turned to a form of permanent harassment with “unwelcome committees” aimed at disrupting each visit the president or his members of government have planned. French organisation Attac (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens) even created an interactive map for all upcoming rallies.
In addition to the “unwelcome committees” organised by unions, other methods aimed at disrupting the nationwide visits have popped up. President Macron experienced power cuts while visiting a company in Muttersholtz, but also at Montpellier airport and at the school in Ganges, where he was forced to carry out his meeting in an outdoor playground.
During his visit to Notre Dame on April 14, the CGT union managed to get their voices heard despite authorities evacuating the cathedral’s surroundings. Vehicles and even a typically Parisian “bateau-mouche” boat on the Seine drove around the premises with banners reading “Macron, quit!”
Left-wing political opponents urged supporters to bash pots and pans during his Monday TV address, and the age-old tactic has become an audible sign of anger at Macron's policies. Hashtags like #MacronChallenge and PotandPanChallenge" have taken Twitter by storm to glavinise the public.
Disrupted or cancelled visits
And so far, the new strategy adopted by French unions has worked. The list of disrupted visits keeps getting longer.
On Wednesday evening, Digital Transition Minister Jean-Noël Barrot was greeted by dozens of protestors with pots and pans in Agen, where he was to hold a conference in a brewery. Union members then disrupted the event with a power cut, leaving participants in the dark.
A similar cacophonic concert of pot and pan bashing was granted to Ecology Minister Christophe Béchu on Wednesday in the Sarthe region, where a score of protestors held up a banner reading “the government perseveres, so do we”.
And on Friday afternoon, Health Minister François Braun was "welcomed" by 250 demonstrators in Montreuil who, bashing pots and pans, spoke to him about their opposition to the reform, an AFP journalist reported.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti decided to postpone a visit to a prison in southeast France “for a few weeks”, but his entourage insist that this is due to “judicial vacations”, not planned protests.
Secretary of State for Youth Sarah El Haïri cancelled her trip to Nantes, dedicated to the Universal National Service (SNU), a voluntary civil conscription service implemented by Macron in 2021. The event had to stop after one hour due to protests. And the Minister of Higher Education Sylvie Retailleau also cancelled a planned visit to the Saclay University in Paris meant to take place on Tuesday
How long will these protest and disruptions last? No one knows. But the French Football Cup final on April 29, where the president typically greets players of both teams, and the new day of mass protest on May 1, Labour Day, is very much on everyone’s minds.
This article was translated from the original in French.